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You're hiking in the woods with a good friend and all of a sudden she stops you and whispers intently, "Hear that?"
You freeze in your tracks, try to control your heavy breathing and listen...
At first nothing. Then a stirring in the brush. The snap of a twig somewhere behind you. You turn to look. A family of whitetail deer- several does, a fawn and then a majestic buck come into view. You are amazed. Then, there - you see it all. The wildness, the beauty, the strength of the moment - nature, raw and untouchable, untamed. The buck catches your scent on the air, stares at you and your friend for a moment and then snorts and the deer are gone.
You and your hiking buddy look at each other and smile, then laugh. You've been graced by the woods, touched by a fleeting moment of surprise and you both know it.
Here's the deal. What about the woods we are hiking in right now? Am I listening for the subtle sounds of beauty approaching? Is a colleague (or Spirit) trying to alert me that I'm missing something important? Am I willing to stop and really soak up this moment?
The ringing is incessant and then becomes a silent part of the constant din of noise – cars starting and driving off, and people hurrying by, captured in constant conversation about the last or next shopping destination. And there I stand, most of the times in the cold – always ringing the little brass bell.
I volunteer through my Rotary Club to ring the Salvation Army bell each year. Each year I hesitate to sign up for a couple of hours of standing in the cold. Each year I think of hundreds of other things I could be doing instead, and each year I sign-up to ring that little bell.
It happens to me every year. Somehow, as people walk by – a variety of faces, ages, economic classes – I see them acknowledge the bell and the bucket and what it represents: the presence of charity in our world. And as slowly and steadily breath brings life into my lungs, each time I speak to the passersby “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” I feel that elusive spirit of Christmas enter into my spirit and I know that beneath and behind all of the trappings of the holiday, people know , need and seek the blessing of Charity.
The ringing of that bell is when I find Christmas, every year and this year, on December 22nd, I will do it again.
Years ago I received a Christmas card with the text below. It remains my favorite Christmas message of all time. The card had a simple dove in flight, descending on the front of a navy card. Inside, it read:
“Remembering that once, long ago, heaven reach down and touched earth and Hope was born anew.”
And the end of the fight is a tomb stone white with the name of the late deceased
And an epitaph drear “A fool lies here who tried to hustle the east.”
Do you ever give thought to the epitaph you want on your tomb stone? Or, do you ever wonder what your surviving relatives (always thought that was a strange connotation. Like they survived your dying?)?
Apparently the possibilities are wide open.
Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.
Memory of an accident in a Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery
Here lays Butch,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.
In a Silver City, Nevada, cemetery
I was somebody.
Who, is no business
Someone determined to be anonymous in Stowe, Vermont
And my favorite,
"I told you I was sick!"
In a Georgia cemetery
On a more serious note, lately I think I know what mine may turn out to be, if I live that long.
My wife and granddaughter (5 years old) talk about me a good bit. In a loving effort to help our granddaughter understand the people in her world, her grandmother will often explain other people’s behavior. I’m no exception. One evening, in anticipation of the coming morning – my granddaughter asked, “Will granddaddy Kim be here in the morning?” My wife explained, “No. He’ll leave early for work, before you are awake. He goes to work every day to make money so we can have food, a house and other nice things.” One morning early, I walked into the bedroom after my shower, to find them both snuggled into our bed. I dressed for work quietly, in the dark and heard them talking.
Granddaughter: There’s granddaddy Kim… in the dark.
Grandmother: Yes. He knew we would be resting and didn't want to bother us. He’s thoughtful like that. He’ll go down and feed the dogs and let them out, too. So they can run up and join us for a snuggle. Isn’t it nice of him to do that for us?
So, as I’m thinking about how my life is impacting others, I’m hearing my wife tell my grandchild that I am a thoughtful, considerate provider. I've worked hard to be a lot of things: an excellent salesperson, a reliable employee, successful in business, an able public speaker, etc. But here I am, looking from the point of view of my family and I find that I am seen in a different light.
Provider. Considerate. Thoughtful.
Honestly, that is an epitaph, be it written on the stone above my grave or on the folds of the hearts of those who remember me, which I can live and die with.
“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” –William James
I spent 8 years in higher education (earn two degrees), 15 years beyond that as a pastor for a mainline denomination, and studied human psychology, pastor counseling and theology. It took a man with no more than a high school education and a background in construction to teach me something real about people, about me.
I was having a bad day and it wasn't even 10:00 am. I’d had an argument with my wife. My children were not behaving the way I wanted them to, and my work schedule for the day was so packed that I knew I wouldn't be able to get all of it done. My brain hurt, my back hurt and I pretty much hated everything and everybody at that moment.
My boss at the time took note of my bad attitude and asked me to come into his office. I did. He listened to my story and then paused before saying, “You have two choices this morning. You can stay pissed and have a sorry day, or you can do something about your attitude.” He reached in the desk drawer and handed me a card* that resembled one of those “do not disturb” door hangers. On the front and back were a series of saying, positive affirmations. He told me to take it and if I wanted to change my attitude to read the saying out load on the way to my first appointment for that day. My attitude wasn't very receptive. I thought of all the psychological cliques that I knew. I thought about how what I was going through was much bigger than a few clever and witty sayings. I thought of a hundred reasons why his suggestion was, at best, inadequate. I didn't challenge him. I took the card and headed for the truck. As I walked out of his office he said one more thing, “I bet you’re too chicken to try it.”
I smiled and for some reason warmed up to the idea of proving him wrong. On the way to my first appointment, I read them out load:
“I will win. Why? I’ll tell you why – because I have faith courage and enthusiasm.”
“Today I will meet the right people in the right place at the right time for the betterment of all.”
“I see opportunity in every challenge.”
“When I fail, I only look at what I did right.”
“I’ll never take advice from someone more messed up than I am.”
The readings continued, and so did the change in my attitude. There is great power in the words we speak to ourselves, and by the time I was done – I did feel better and begin to think on the things I could do to be effective and successful that day. I have never forgotten that lesson.
So, I believe who we are begins with what we believe and what we believe is created by what we do every day.
The sun cast shadows upon the meadow, long tendrils entwining the branches of distant trees into a single shade.
The warrior sat upon a rock overlooking the rolling fields that lead to town and home, allowing his thoughts to cast their own shadows, collecting into one thought: "How much longer can I do this?"
With effort he lifted his weight and stood facing west. He felt the pain surge through his broken knee and the burn beneath newly forming scabs on his back. He stood and prayed aloud.
"Odin, my guard and guide. For 55 seasons I have lived. For 36 of these I have fought the Beast into submission, annually sending its weakened body and depleted spirit back into the caves to sleep and heal through the winter. I wield sword and shield in Your name and provide safety for my home, my family, my village. Each year I fail to destroy the Beast and like the certainty of each spring it returns. I am tired and wounded and this time I fear tired beyond this battle and wounded of not only body, but spirit. How long, Odin, how long can I continue?"
The warrior gave into his pain and stumbled to one knee, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword and brow upon his forearm. He could hear the music and singing beginning already, drifting across the darkening meadow in celebration of his victory. He knew better. He knew that the beast would live and in a few months they would renew their battle, and he doubted. He felt not only the pain of injuries that would heal, but the weakness in his limbs and mind that would not.
Tonight the village would sing. Tankers of ale would be hoisted in his honor. The voices of maidens would sing and young men would weave another chapter in the tale of his valor. Their Hero was invincible. The winter would be safe.
But next season would come.
A breeze lifted his thinning hair as he raised his head.
"Odin," He spoke almost a whisper, "Tonight we will celebrate. I will not worry about the aging of my bones, or the weakening of my strength. Tonight I will give you thanks for our victory, another year of safety. But, tomorrow I will not lift tankers of ale or songs. I will forget the victories of the past, and I will prepare for the battles to come. I will lift whetstone and blade, shield and arm and return back to the work of a warriors training. I will not quit. Odin, you have my word and my life."
As the last word drifted away on the breeze, a tired man stood and began walking to the village.
My thought, as my life has change in the decade since I left ordained ministry, is that there are things I wish I had said from the pulpit. No regrets - just a former pastor's way of sharing about crazed religion, absurd theology and hilarious stories. Let me invite you to WishfulPreaching.com.
You can also find me on Twitter and Facebook.
1. Celebrate today - everything we do, each moment we live is too precious to be treated as a passing fancy. I will better live in the now.
2. Laugh harder - there are too many minutes between belly laughs so intense that they make me cry.
3. Pray deeper - it is time to embrace an ancient and powerful oracle once again.